The world asks: ‘Where is Peng Shuai?’, But Chinese tennis fans do not even know she is missing

Sophia * is a tennis fan living in southwestern China who rarely misses watching any major tournaments.

But she has not even heard a whisper about the scandal that engulfs one of the country’s greatest champions – the former world number 1 doubles player Peng Shuai.

While the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai has gone viral in the Twitter realm and has dominated international news headlines in recent weeks, Sophia’s issues are no wonder in China.

Ever since Ms. Peng dropped a #MeToo bomb on social media accusing China’s former Deputy Prime Minister Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault, her name and Weibo account have been widely censored in China.

Human rights groups, tennis players, and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) responded quickly to her accusation and her sudden “disappearance” from the public, expressing strong concerns about her well-being.

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Beyond China’s Great Firewall – the term for the Chinese Communist Party’s internet censorship that blocks Google, Twitter and Facebook, among others – the discussions about her situation have been heated, and many have demanded that the government prove that she is safe.

Ms Peng has since reappeared in various media appearances – including in a video chat with the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach on Sunday, apparently an attempt to assure the world that she is “safe and healthy”.

IOC President Thomas Bach talks to Peng Shuai on a video call.
IOC President Thomas Bach holds a video chat with Peng Shuai, but observers are still skeptical of her well-being.(Delivered: IOC)

But the video and other glimpses of her, including footage of her dining at a restaurant and an email allegedly from Ms. Peng and published by the state-run CGTN, saying “everything is fine” – have not done much to allay concerns .

How China hides a worldwide scandal

Fans like Sophia have been kept in the dark. When she was told that the former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion was censored over a Weibo post, she wondered if Mrs Peng had “insulted the party again”.

A selfie taken by Peng Shuai with a Kung Fu Panda doll.
A picture of Peng Shuai attracted attention online as it shows a picture of Plush – a cartoon character often used to mock Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Twitter)

She vaguely recalled that Mrs Peng had previously been involved in a dispute in her early career, in which she and former Australian Open winner Li Na fought to “fly solo” away from China’s state-run sports apparatus, which has been notorious for creating an enormous pressure. over the athletes’ training regimes.

Although that act of rebellion had once put her in the spotlight in China, her now high-profile “disappearance” has largely gone unnoticed into the country.

The episode shows that Beijing is ready to “respond with a state-run operation aimed at cooling off any challenge to the CCP authority,” according to academics Yan Bennett and John Garrick.

Two men shaking hands.
A picture of Mr Bach in a 2016 meeting with Zhang Gaoli, who has been accused of sexual assault, has reappeared online.(AFP: Xinhua)

“In Peng’s case, her ‘disappearance’ seems to be an attempt to kill several flies with one arrow: crush dissent, stem any Chinese #MeToo momentum and instill fears of criticizing CCP officials because it as the vanguard of the Communist Party under Xi Jinping Thought, they must always be seen as virtuous, “they wrote to The Conversation.

China’s foreign ministry, which has faced repeated questions from international media about Ms. Peng, said on Tuesday that the Chinese government hoped “malicious speculation” about her whereabouts would stop.

But this answer was omitted from the summary of their press conference on their website.

Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of China’s state-owned tabloid Global Times, also wrote on Twitter – which is not available in China – about Ms. Peng’s case, but has remained silent about the case on his Chinese social media accounts.

This is not to say that there is no mention of Peng Shuai on the Chinese internet – there are still rare chats about her on Weibo that have filtered through the CCP’s censorship machine, with some demanding an investigation into her accusation.

A video, from the Russian news agency Ruptly, is available in China on Weibo and shows Ms. Peng participating in an awards ceremony for young Chinese tennis players.

The title of the video referred to Ms Peng as “the tennis player who showed up after the riots” that puzzled some internet users in China.

A Weibo user called Wuyangleerzheng asked, “What was the unrest? Can you please explain?”

“When you call for an inquiry into the matter, do not just try to cover it up,” commented another user, Mr_Huang312.

Many others who responded to the video wondered how Ruptly had not been “invited to tea” – a euphemism for being questioned by Chinese police – for their post.

Calls for exploration in a ‘parallel universe’

The CCP’s widely differing media approaches to Mrs Peng’s case – depending on whether it was for a domestic or foreign audience – came as no surprise to China’s observers.

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai hits a tennis ball during training at the Australian Open in 2019.
Rights groups say an investigation into Ms. Peng’s allegations would go a long way in convincing people she’s safe.(Reuters: Adnan Abidi / File Photo)

But the strategy did not work, according to Natasha Kassam, director of the Lowy Institute’s Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Program, who has been following the case closely.

China’s domestic efforts to control the conversation have mostly been successful, Ms Kassam said, but people still hear about it and know they are not capable of talking about it.

A WTA spokesman has said that while it was good to see Mrs Peng in the video with Mr Bach, it “did not alleviate or address the WTA’s concern about her well – being and ability to communicate without censorship or coercion.”

“This video does not change our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation without censorship of her allegation of sexual assault, which is the question that gave rise to our initial concern.”

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said that “claims about her well-being should come directly from her, unfiltered through the state-controlled media or peculiar, IOC-backed propaganda exercises”.

“If Chinese authorities want to substantiate her – or others’ freedom – perhaps refrain from deleting their posts on social media?”

Amnesty International’s China researcher Alkan Akad said the Chinese government “so far has not shown any indication that it has taken Peng Shuai’s allegations of sexual assault seriously, let alone initiated a proper and effective investigation into them”.

Ms Kassam reiterated this sentiment, saying it would be useful for the Chinese system to work towards a fair and transparent way of dealing with cases of sexual assault.

“There is a parallel universe where Peng’s claim is taken seriously and treated in a transparent way … and it is not seen at all as a threat to stability or their political power,” she said.

Portrait of a woman with glasses and long black hair.
Ms Kassam says Beijing could have handled Ms Peng’s case differently, including making an example of the retired CCP official, Mr Zhang. (Delivered: )

When she made her #MeToo accusations, Ms. Peng drew international media attention to her situation.

But Sophia said she did not think it would result in a positive outcome for Mrs Peng’s case – not only because of the apparent censorship, but also because Mrs Peng and her sport do not have a high profile in China.

“After all, tennis is not as popular here as abroad. Many of my non-tennis colleagues do not even know who Peng Shuai is,” she said.

* Sophia is a pseudonym for protecting her identity.

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